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It's back: The food coloring/hyperactivity debate and the red bug

March 28, 2011 |  2:39 pm

Back in the 1970s, when Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder was called (lower-cased) hyperactivity, worried parents attended many a meeting touting the Feingold Diet, which called for easing symptoms by having children eat foods without artificial ingredients such as preservatives and coloring -- no easy task in the pre-organic days.

Some parents swore by the diet, but studies were inconclusive. During the 1980s the big uptick in Ritalin to treat ADHD began and concerns about food additives faded into the background. Now those concerns are back -- at least at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, where a panel will once again review the evidence on food dyes. (It did so a quarter-century ago without reaching any conclusions.)

The background findings so far don't offer a ringing endorsement for the idea that artificial food dyes are causing widespread ADHD -- but say there's some reason to think that for a some children with ADHD it may worsen symptoms:

Based on our review of the data from published literature, FDA concludes that a causal relationship between exposure to color additives and hyperactivity in children in the general population has not been established. For certain susceptible children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and other problem behaviors, however, the data suggest that their condition may be exacerbated by exposure to a number of substances in food, including, but not limited to, synthetic color additives. Findings from relevant clinical trials indicate that the effects on their behavior appear to be due to a unique intolerance to these substances and not to any inherent neurotoxic properties.

If this is true, does it call for banning artificial food coloring, requiring special labels -- or simply advising parents of children with ADHD to be aware?

Now, about the red bug: Couldn't resist divulging a little info about where the natural red color, carmine, comes from: a scale insect, also called the cochineal bug, that is a parasite on prickly-pear cactus. The insect produces a red pigment that it stores in its body fluids. After Hernan Cortes discovered the coloring in use by the Mayans he brought it to Europe, where for hundreds of years cochineal was the primary red dye for cloth and rivaled gold in price per weight.

-- Karin Klein

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